Luna watched the sunrise through her window as Celestia hauled the blazing orb across the sky. The sight usually brought with it some reassurance, some sense of certainty that things were going to be okay, that she had survived another night of the thing stalking her, but she’d since learned that daylight did nothing to deter it. The pony was still there, his form scratching at the edge of her vision, and if anything sunlight only made shadows stronger.
It was hard to feel anything but trepidation, recently. Yes, Celestia had taken Luna’s story far better than Luna had ever expected or hoped, but that hadn’t stopped the pony from watching her, following her, and Celestia had seemed so strangely guarded as Luna recounted her tale. She knew Tia well enough to know when her sister was hiding something.
How many years had they spent together, after all? Uncountable, by this point, so long that their youth had all but faded in Luna’s memory, and yet still Celestia had secrets. Still there were things she would keep Luna from knowing. Not that Luna was really in any position to judge, of course, keeping the shadow hidden for all these years, and yet when she had gone to Celestia to bare her soul and lay out her secrets, she recognised that familiar expression as Celestia wrestled with her conscience. And even if it was hypocritical, it still stung that Tia did not trust Luna enough to tell her the truth.
You’re being petty. She must have had good reason to keep things from you.
Perhaps. Or perhaps it was more sinister, more guilty. Perhaps Celestia knew the truth behind these circles, the shadow, and had some manner of control over them. Perhaps banishing Luna to the moon had been an attempt at an execution.
Now you’re really being paranoid.
Yes, she was. Too tired, her mind too frayed to think straight. If there was one thing she knew it was that Celestia loved her, truly, and would never intentionally hurt her. Would never keep something like that from her just to use it as a weapon. What, then? What was so important to keep secret, what truth was Celestia hiding?
Spiralling questions without answer. Questions that, although Luna would not know until it was far too late, would never go answered. And so lost in whirling thoughts and exhaustion, Luna didn’t see the shadow getting closer.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have anyway; it had become such an ever-present part of her waking hours, that flittering, fluttering darkness at one side of every moment, the pony standing and smiling and watching but never talking, far enough that the whispering shadows he was made of couldn’t be heard either.
But it wasn’t the whispers she heard, first. It was the soft thump as his shadowy hoof fell upon her shoulder, and though Luna hadn’t seen him approach she saw him now as he spun her round to face him, and she didn’t think he could do that – first touching her and now standing directly in the centre of her vision, no longer lingering at the edges.
Ice and fear swallowing her as she stared at the being in front of her, his fur smoky tendrils, his eyes hollow and full of stars. His smile wide as those innumerable whispers filled her ears. He’d found her. He’d reached her, and already she felt herself starting to drift, starting to sink into those hollow pits that showed only space, only the universe from another time. From through the circle, where the shadow had taken its stars and devoured them just like it had to that world’s Equestria.
And the shadow held her and drowned her in those dark abysses and it showed her the truth. It showed her the foal playing alone in ash, their coat dark blue, their mane stars. It showed her the sky falling, melting, the world burning. Her world burning. It showed her the moment it had encompassed her in its shadow and rather than eating it had stayed its jaws, stayed its hunger, and it had marked her and then left her to play in the ash while it punched a circle, one through which a small, white foal would soon tumble. And it showed her how it had waited, and how its time for waiting was done.
It showed her hunger.
It showed her truth.
It showed her inevitability.
“Please,” she whispered, in the last thought that was truly her own, tears coursing down her cheeks even though she didn’t know when she’d started crying. “I don’t want to.”
And then Luna was gone.
It was hard for Celestia to pinpoint exactly when Luna had begun to forget the world of ash. They’d both been so young, and though the circumstances of their first meeting were crystal clear in her mind, the rest was covered in that haze of old, near-forgotten memories. Even at the time, it had been hard for her to notice Luna forgetting.
The decision to pretend Luna was her sister had seemed a pure kindness, but now Celestia couldn’t help but see the pragmatism in her parents’ actions. Better a new daughter than to have an unchecked alicorn running around. The foals themselves had been more than happy with the arrangement, and soon it was no longer even a lie. They were sisters, in every sense that mattered. More than sisters. Closer than any sisters could ever be.
And so when Luna had started to forget, it had just made things even easier. It was small at first – an extra conviction in her assertion she was Celestia’s relative, or she’d keep to the story when they were alone and there was no real need for hiding the truth. Perhaps it was the separation from her world, or perhaps Luna had simply chosen to believe her own truth, but somehow she had slowly forgotten and Celestia had let her.
She was reaching for the key again, the one she kept on her nightstand. Small, golden. Almost without thinking she floated it down to the drawers below and unlocked the very bottom one, its rails shrieking with disuse as it opened.
Inside were two identical wooden ponies. One that Luna had brought with her, a small chip on its ear from where she had dropped it after they escaped from the ash together, and the other that Celestia’s mother had made for Celestia herself before the circle had ever even appeared.
Celestia had kept that a secret. She’d hidden the figurine, knowing it would raise too many questions, and let Luna believe whatever she wanted to believe. And when Luna had forgotten, Celestia had hidden her pony too. Let her believe they were friends, and then that they were sisters. That was enough. But the truth, of course, was that they were far closer than that. Two sides of a single, dimensional coin.
Sisters in every way, separated by a circle.
But no more secrets, not anymore. No more hidden truths. Not lies, though, she’d never lied, but she’d never given the truth, either. No matter how much Luna deserved it. Celestia had been protecting her, or so she thought. Saving her. Celestia would bear the burden of truth, and Luna would forget, and she would be happier than she could ever be otherwise. And as the years and centuries and millennia went on, those secrets became harder to share, and then impossible, and the only thing left of them now were two wooden ponies hidden at the bottom of a drawer.
She lifted them from their confinement, gently, and was surprised at how light they were. That felt wrong, somehow, but she supposed they were only toys after all. It would have been impossible for them to be as heavy as they were meant to be, as the weight they bore, as her longest kept secret.
But no longer. She gripped the figurines tightly as she made her way from her chambers and out into the bright castle halls with steady, sure resolve. Celestia barely acknowledged the ponies she crossed paths with this time, the slightest head nod in response to sharp salutes and reverent curtsies.
If only for today, politeness could be skipped.
Her mind was far too preoccupied for the usual niceties, mentally playing the approaching conversation with Luna over and over, trying to imagine how she could broach the subject without breaking her sister’s heart. She’d thought that might help, that she could have some sort of script to follow by the time she reached Luna’s room, but the more she dwelled the worse her imagined confessions went. Every step dislodged another attempt, discarding it with the others.
So lost in her own thoughts, Celestia almost walked straight into the guard standing in the middle of the hallway, startling her out of her reverie as she began to apologise. The guard wasn’t even looking at her, staring slack-jawed out of the window, frozen in place. Her apology began to turn into a reprimand, but then she caught a glance at what he was looking at and the words died in her throat. Her own mouth fell open, too, and she felt the world start to constrict and narrow around her vision.
The moon was rising.
Celestia’s sun still blazed, merely hours since she had raised it (late, as her maid had hastened to remind her), and yet the moon rose. Slowly but surely making its way up to where the sun shone. Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
The wooden ponies dropped from her grasp with a dry clatter against the marble, and then Celestia was running, cantering. The moon rose. The windows flickering by as she ran, each one showing a moon that was a little higher, a little further, soaring. She could only watch as it reached her sun and didn’t even slow, moving in front of it and beginning to blot it out.
Had Nightmare Moon returned? Had the shadow somehow brought her back? Tartarus, she thought she had time. She was supposed to have time, time to tell Luna everything, time for them to fix this, to find the root and yank it free and everything would be okay in the end, just like it always was. But the moon rose and everything was not okay and Celestia couldn’t dare to stop or slow as the shadows lengthened and the world began to grow dark.
A deep crescent had been sliced out of her sun by the time she rounded the final corner to her sister’s bedroom, gasping into sore lungs. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, perhaps the remnants of a struggle – wounded or dead guards, something. Certainly not to find all the ponies stationed outside her sister’s doors entirely unperturbed. Worse, most of them simply seemed bored. They were quick to snap to attention when Celestia rounded the corner, though, a series of salutes that only made a sharp flare of anger flicker in her chest.
“Princess!” barked the boldest of them. “Nothing to report!”
“Nothing!? My sister was under your protection, what are you doing?”
The guard raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I don’t understand, is something wrong?”
“Wasn’t there a struggle? Anything?”
The guard’s brow’s furrows deepened. “No, nothing like that. All’s been quiet. No one’s even come here save from Princess Luna and yourself.”
Celestia bit back the urge to scream and pushed past the confused pony, slipping through the door just as some of the others noticed the now rapidly-darkening sky and flocked to the windows. She shut out their panic behind the door, it would have only made her angrier.
Luna’s chambers were quiet. Dim. The curtains were drawn, the world muted and distant behind them as the light faded and drenched the room in darkness, her sister nowhere to be seen.
Calling out felt stupid, useless, but she did it anyway, and she hated the little quaver in her voice. She could almost hear the foal in her reprimanding herself – Princesses aren’t supposed to sound like that. But still no answer, still no Luna, and the darkness grew ever deeper. No sign of a struggle or a fight, no sign of anything, the room the same as it always was and always had been. Not a thing out of place except for Luna herself.
That, and the door to the balcony hanging slightly ajar.
Quietly, carefully, even though Celestia wasn’t quite sure why she felt that was important, she crept her way towards the door, her eyes flicking frantically around for any sign of what had happened here. But still nothing, until there was no other choice but to push open the door and step outside.
Luna stood at the very edge, staring up at the sky as the moon claimed the very last edges of sun and her eclipse became total. She must have heard Celestia – there was no way she wouldn’t have, no way the slightly open door had been anything but an invitation – and yet she remained fixated on the sky, her horn ablaze as she moved the moon inexorably into place.
Her coat was still deep blue, not black – not Nightmare Moon, then. Something else.
“Luna?” tried Celestia, taking another small step closer, past the table where only a few hours ago they had sat and shared tea and Luna had told her everything and Celestia had told Luna nothing.
No response. She hadn’t really been expecting one, though she was unsure which would be better or worse.
“Luna, you have to stop this.” Trying to be firm, trying to break through whatever hold had been placed over her.
Closer still, and now she could hear Luna after all, muttering rapidly under her breath. Not words, though. Just sounds – endless, incessant, rolling over one another in a meaningless array of chanted noise.
“Luna, please,” she begged, hating the plaintive notes in her voice but knowing there was nothing she could have done to prevent them. “You can stop this. You’re stronger than whatever this is, I know you are.”
More silence. More muttering. The moon stopped, the sun fully eclipsed, and the magic in Luna’s horn sputtered and died. Still she stared upwards, still she muttered, right up until Celestia closed the rest of the distance between them and gently placed her hoof on Luna’s shoulders.
She didn’t jump. Celestia had almost still expected her to, had still been ready to smile as if none of this was happening, ready to take her sister’s reprimands even though they would be thoroughly undeserved, but none came. Instead Luna simply turned her head, so slowly, as if every inch was a terrible strain, and Celestia’s hoof dropped as she stumbled backwards in shock.
She could still see the glistening trails of not-yet-dry tears that had fallen from the starry voids where Luna’s eyes used to be. Their emptiness burned into Celestia’s mind, and she could see all the tortured pain in every facet of her sister’s face even before Luna spoke.
“I’m sorry, Tia,” Luna said, and her voice was dull and slow and not quite her own, not quite right. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’ll be okay,” Celestia assured her, even though she wasn’t sure she believed it herself, pulling Luna into a tight hug as she tried not to look at her face. “We can still fix this. I don’t know how, but we will.”
Luna was strangely stiff in her embrace, as if she had never hugged anypony before and didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
“You don’t understand,” Luna insisted, and there was the faintest trace of panic breaking through that otherwise dull monotone. “He’s come home.”
And Celestia looked up at the sky and saw what Luna had made, and she understood. Too late, she understood.
A circle. A bright ring, blazing light surrounding a pitch-black centre.
Too late. It was all too late. There was nothing left for Celestia to do but watch as what was left of Luna wept beside her and the darkness within the circle began to crumble away at the edges, writhing shadow beginning to melt through the gaps.
Soon the screams down below would begin, and not long afterwards they would stop.
Among shimmering crystal and drifts of ash, the foal played. She no longer had much in the way of toys; the only thing she had left was a stuffed, pink pony, an old gift from her mother. The rest were gone.
She still remembered saying goodbye. She remembered how the sky blazed red, her parents telling her to be good, that they would be back soon but right now they were needed somewhere else. That there were lots of ponies who needed help and so they had to go help them because that was their duty, but everything would be okay in the end and they would be back.
But they had lied. They didn’t come back. And then the ash had fallen, and then everypony else was gone too. The foal wished she had told her parents that she needed them, too – perhaps then they would have stayed. But she didn’t, and they didn’t, and now she was alone. The ash and shadows had taken everyone else.
She wasn’t sure why it had left her alone. Maybe fillies didn’t taste good. Maybe it had just overlooked her. Maybe it just hadn’t found her yet. She saw it, sometimes, among the ash that hung so thickly outside that it was like fog. No nights anymore – just ash, just grey. And sometimes in that grey she saw shifting darkness, but only out of the corner of her eyes, and sometimes the foal could convince herself that it was just her imagination instead.
And so the foal played, and tried not to think about it. The castle seemed so desolate, now, not another pony to be found in its cavernous halls, and yet she had nowhere else to go. She couldn’t set hoof outside or the shadow lurking in the ash might find her, and then she would be ash too. So she played, alone, and she wasn’t sure how long she would be able to but she also wasn’t sure what else she could ever have done. If she had never heard the other filly she might have played alone forever.
“Hello?” said someone behind her, and it had been so long since the foal had heard a voice other than her own that she’d almost forgotten what it sounded like.
She whipped around in shock, clutching the plush pony tighter as she came face to face with the first other being she’d seen for… how long had it been? She wasn’t sure.
A filly, perhaps a little older than she was but otherwise just like her. Like her in more ways than one, in fact: she was an alicorn, which was strange because her parents had always told her that alicorns were very rare and special and there were only a few of them and she thought she’d met them all before. This filly’s fur was dark purple, her mane lighter and clipped short, and she stared at the foal with unabashed inquisitiveness.
“Who are you?” the foal asked, shifting a little bit further away as the other filly tried to take a step closer.
“Oh, my name’s Soul! Well, kinda. There’s some other stuff, too, and titles and things, but I don’t like them very much. Soul is fine.” The filly beamed brightly at her. “What’s your name?”
“Flurry Heart,” the foal murmured, still unsure what to make of the filly before her.
“That’s a nice name,” said Soul. “Bit of a mouthful, though. What about just Heart?”
“Normally it’s the other way around.”
“Flurry?” Soul tilted her head, contemplating. “No, that’s not as good,” she concluded, so matter-of-factly that Flurry almost found herself agreeing.
“How did you get here?” asked Flurry, still hugging her plush tightly as if Soul might steal it if she didn’t. “Did you come through the ash?”
“The what?” Soul glanced down and then raised a hoof, studying the grey that stuck to it. “Is that what this stuff is? Weird.”
“What? It’s everywhere, how haven’t you seen it before?” Flurry had more questions, countless more, but they stopped seeming so important when she saw what was behind Soul. “What is that?”
Soul blinked in panic, but relaxed after she turned and saw what had startled Flurry. “Oh yeah! That’s how I got here. It just sort of showed up in my room, and then the middle disappeared, and then I saw you through it and decided I should come say hi.”
The circle floated in midair, a bright, shining ring. There was something oddly familiar about it, but Flurry quickly discarded the notion when she saw what was on the other side.
“Is that… sunlight?”
“Er, yeah. Is that strange?” Soul glanced outside the crystal castle’s windows, and frowned. “Oh, I guess it’s kinda misty here, huh?”
“Something like that.”
Flurry couldn’t tear her eyes away from the room on the other side of the circle. So familiar, but different. The crystal sparkled so brightly – she’d forgotten it did that, how beautiful it looked when it caught the sunlight. And not a trace of ash, spotlessly clean and clear.
Probably no shadow, either.
“Can… can I come see it?”
Soul grinned. “Of course you can! Although it looks pretty similar to here. My castle’s made out of crystal, too, but it’s a different colour to yours. And obviously we haven’t got the, uh, ash. But I’m sure you get used to it, right?”
Flurry shook her head. “No, you don’t.”
There was a brief, painful silence as Soul tried not to ask any more questions that Flurry wouldn’t want to answer, but eventually the other filly could bear it no longer. She seemed the type to fill every silence she could.
“Well anyway, come on through! I’ll show you my room, and afterwards we can find some guards and walk through the city if you like.”
A sudden rush of excitement and nervousness flooded through Flurry Heart at the thought. A city, bustling with ponies and activity. The thought – the memory – almost scared her a little. Loneliness had become second nature, and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to handle the bustle of a living, breathing city again. Of a castle filled with hoofsteps and voices instead of silence and ash.
Soul froze on her way back over to the circle. “Oh, wait, you probably have to ask your parents, don’t you? Otherwise they’ll be wondering where you are.”
Flurry’s chest wrenched a little at the mention of her parents, and it must have shown on her face because Soul’s broad smile faltered a little.
“They won’t,” said Flurry, dully. She could tell that Soul was itching to ask, biting back her curiosity, but Flurry wasn’t ready to indulge her. “They’re gone,” she said. All she was willing to say.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Flurry, but it wasn’t.
Another painful silence, longer this time as Soul tried to look anywhere but at her while Flurry stared through the circle and remembered how her own castle had looked when the light shone through it like that. Her mother had a word for it, a word that sparkled like water, but Flurry couldn’t quite remember it anymore and it hurt that she’d forgotten it. It hurt more that she could never ask Cadance what it was again.
“Well,” said Soul, breaking her out of her memories, “do you still want to come see?”
Flurry nodded slowly, holding her plush pony close as she stepped forwards.
“Don’t worry,” Soul told her. “It feels a bit weird but it doesn’t hurt.” She smiled again, so brightly, and for the first time in far too long it actually raised Flurry’s spirits a little. She wondered if she would ever be able to smile like that again, after everything she’d lost. She hoped so. “Come on,” Soul said, “I’ve got so much to show you!”
And together they stepped through the circle, and Flurry did smile as the warmth settled against her fur, just a small one. Neither of the foals noticed the shadow that had seeped into the room they’d left behind, watching as they crossed the gap. It watched them step through and it watched them smile and it watched them be oblivious as the circle dwindled to nothing behind them, and then the shadow was alone. Time to rest. Time to slumber, sated at last. Not to wake until it had been forgotten once more, until the marked one was ready and the shadows were hungry again.
But for now it would close its uncountable, stolen eyes and sink into sleep, and if it dreamt it would dream of circles.